Friday Food Blog: Cheater's chana masala

From Food

Please excuse the blurry, stalker-esque photo. And yes, I know, today is not Friday. But I’ve been in love with chana dal since attending a Hindu wedding last summer. I first tried the dish during the mendhi celebration, when the groom’s mother prepared it for the women in his family. Instantly, I realized I would have to learn how to make it for myself. Although I had come to enjoy Indian cuisine since moving to Toronto (where the influence of our significant South Asian population has trickled into the grocery store freezer aisle, home of the tandoori chicken fingers), I had never until this moment wanted to try it for myself. I had looked at the recipes. I knew how complicated they were. I knew there was no way I would buy a separate spice grinder, or start pan-frying whole cumin seeds in the final five minutes of cooking, or culturing my own paneer. But this dish, with its soft bursts of mellow flavour punctuating a sweet, silky, spicy stew — I had to have that, over and over. (With naan. I’m a sucker for naan.)

This dish makes no claim to authenticity. I did not learn it from the woman who first served it to me. It has no ghee, the clarified butter that helps the dish achieve that Oh God more please now sensation that it should have. It also has no chickpeas, because I had no desire to a) soak chickpeas, or b) render canned ones into mush with my slow-cooker. I chose real chana dal instead: the dried yellow split peas that gave the dish its name. In place of clarified butter, I used light coconut milk. Ordinarily, I would have gone with the full-fat variety, but this week I endured the Cronenbergian body horror that is trying on new jeans, so low-calorie it is.

Special thanks to Tim Maughan for inspiring this entry with his Otaku Cook Up challenge. I found out about it through Twitter, and it sounds like a good idea. I do have a quibble with Tim’s argument that learning how to cook is part of an otaku’s “manning up” process. The otaku I associate with on a regular basis all know how to cook. In fact, I can safely say that most of the men I’ve ever befriended have known how to cook. They get excited about food. They email me about it. They IM me about it. They teach me little tips and tricks. Sometimes, they even feed me.

Then again, they’re men — not boys. Therein, perhaps, lies the difference.

You will need:

  • 1 TB olive oil
  • 1/2 large onion, or 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 inch fresh ginger, chopped into matchsticks
  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped finely
  • 1.5 cup chana dal (dried yellow split peas), rinsed
  • 2 potatoes, scrubbed and cubed finely
  • 1 carrot, sliced
  • 1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes, plus 1 can water
  • 1 can light coconut milk (go full fat for more flavour)
  • 2 tsp. curry powder
  • 1 tsp. cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 head cauliflower, cored and sectioned
  • fresh cilantro, chopped, to garnish

Throw all the ingredients save the cilantro into the slow cooker, mix, cover and set to low heat for eight hours. You can make this dish spicier by seeding and slicing a jalapeño or cubanelle pepper and adding it to the mix. You can make it more savoury by adding some vegetable bouillon, or vegetable broth in place of the water. This will raise the sodium content of the meal, but there are so many healthy ingredients here that it might not be amiss. This dish actually tastes better the next day, and it will make epic amounts of leftovers. I served mine with naan, because that’s my favourite. Rice would also work.

I know Tim suggested that we post meals intended for romantic evenings in, but I’m not sure that this qualifies. It’s messy, and you won’t look as spectacularly impressive as you might, say, standing over an open flame flipping over pink slabs of meat. On the other hand, it’s the first intentionally vegan meal I’ve ever made, and I believe that everyone should have such dishes in their culinary repertoire. I’m not a vegan, and I doubt I ever will be, but the health and environmental benefits can’t be emphasized enough, and I know from cooking for both vegetarians and those with food allergies that a little bit of effort to make something your guest can actually eat goes a long way.

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